Sunday, April 28, 2013

DO GOOD FOLLOWERS MAKE GOOD LEADERS - Absurd Logic - The Promotion Paradox

The Promotion Paradox – Crazy Non Sequitur of HR Management


If you wonder why, at times, the military leadership seems clueless on taking decisions well within it purview and seeks “guidance” from politicians and bureaucrats, maybe the answer lies in the promotion policies of the Military Human Resource (HR) Management System.

The promotion policy of the navy (and army) is based on the premise:

“Good Followers make Good Leaders”

Yes, promotion in the military is based on absurd logic, a contradiction in terms, on the non sequitur:

“You have to learn how to follow in order to lead”

Is this statement not an incongruity in itself?

How can the ability to lead depend on the ability to follow ?

It is just like saying that the ability to swim depends on the ability to sink

Good followers carry out decisions made by others. They are required to blindly obey orders without questioning.

Good followers are not expected to use their own ingenuity.

They must simply “do what they are told”.

They must never act on their own initiative or “make waves” or “rock the boat”.

Good followers are “yes-men”.

And since the basic hypothesis of the promotion system is that “good followers make good leaders” it is mostly “yes-men” who rise up the promotion ladder and get catapulted to leadership positions.

Ideally, in theory, “officer-like-qualities” like professional competence, integrity, patriotism, honesty, straightforwardness, single-mindedness-of-purpose, brashness, and the ability to call a spade a spade by bluntly speaking out your mind, are desirable in combat officers.

However, in practice, especially in peacetime cantonment soldiering, these very same idealistic “officer-like-qualities” may adversely affect the career prospects of an officer in comparison to his more “tactful” morally-pliable peers who “ego-massage” their superiors, practice “yes sir yes sir three bags full sir” yes-man-ship and grovel with sycophancy in front of their seniors.

Well, I have seen this happen in the military services, but when I see so many “yes-men” masquerading as leaders in the civilian world too, especially in politics and bureaucracy, it seems that this absurd non sequitur paradox “Good Followers make Good Leaders” is universal in nature.


In his book “On The Psychology of Military Incompetence”, Norman Dixon quotes Liddel Hart: “A lifetime of having to curb the expression of original thought culminates so often in there being nothing left to express”.

Similarly, after grovelling and bootlicking for 30 years to “earn” his promotion to high rank, how can you suddenly expect an officer to instantaneously metamorphose from “a dog in obedience” to “a lion in action”.

With continuous dedicated practice of  good “followership”, meek obedience becomes your trait and subservient yes-man-ship becomes your nature.

Once “yesmanship” becomes your natural trait, you will continue to be a good follower irrespective of whatever rank or level of authority you attain.

Good followers are competent at carrying out orders, while good leaders are competent at making decisions and giving orders.

Yes, a leader is required to take decisions.

“Yesmanship” stifles decision making ability.  

In the long term, continuous practice of “yesmanship” kills leadership qualities.

Thus, when a yes-man is promoted to a leadership position he cannot take decisions himself and hence he keeps running to his superiors for even the smallest of issues though these may well be within his purview.

Is this not visible in the senior military leadership of today who keep running to their political and bureaucratic masters seeking advice for decisions which may well be within their scope or may be purely tactical or military in nature?

Do you see this lack of good decision making capability in the political and civilian leadership as well?


Many of the greatest military leaders throughout history, who achieved success on the battlefield and victories in war, were notoriously poor followers, especially in peacetime soldiering. In fact, in many cases, had it not been for war, many of them may not even have been promoted. (One such example in India is Field Marshal Manekshaw who may have retired as a Major General had it not been for the 1962 war).

Let me end with a quote:

Thousands of moralists have solemnly repeated the old saying that only he can command who has learnt to obey.
It would be nearer the truth to say that only he can command who has the courage and initiative to disobey

~ William McDougall, Character and the Conduct of Life (1927)

Dear Reader: Do you agree with the promotion paradox? Please comment and let us know your views.

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Sanjay Pal said...

Greed, lust for power and sycophancy has subverted the entire system. Higher leadership is enjoying the fruits of our democracy, be it National or Military leadership. It is sad to see names of Retd Service Chiefs coming up too often in various scams.

Shrinath Shenoy said...

I recently read a long article on Narendra Modi's life till now. It is said that in his RSS days, he was such a poor follower of orders owing to his strong headedness, that he had received a lot of reprimands from his seniors. Supports the observations in this article...and our Yes Man is indeed the most Mute Sardar we all know of...:)

Vikram Waman Karve said...

@ Srinath - Good you could validate the observation. If you look around you may find many more examples (and the opposite yes-man effect too)

Vikram Waman Karve said...

@ sanjay - absolutely